Byzantine Forces Behind Turkish Politics
June 19, 2013
by Steve Sailer
Watching the news of protests in Istanbul, I’m reminded of the time I required a Turkish private detective’s services.
I was in Turkey and had to get the answer to an important personal question.
I had tried all the proper channels, spending many fruitless hours on the phone with very nice Turkish customer-service representatives who worked as hard as they could to answer my question. They were—in the characteristic Turkish manner—polite, concerned, and desirous of being helpful.
They also weren’t very effectual. Turkey is not a country set up around the principle of data transparency. Stewart Brand’s old cyberspace mantra “Information wants to be free” is not the kind of idea that would automatically occur to a Turk. Instead, information wants to be hoarded, passed along only face-to-face.
Then there was a knock on my door, and I was introduced to an older gentleman. He didn’t speak any English, but he was described as having worked in “Security.” (The word was enunciated in such a way that I could hear it was capitalized.) He had, it was added, close relatives currently working in Security.
No more explanation was offered. Puzzled, I responded that while I much appreciated this offer of assistance, I had called every imaginable authority and they simply didn’t know the answer to my question. So I didn’t see how anybody could find out anything.
No, it was explained to me again, more slowly: This man was in Security. Just write down what you need to know on this piece of paper and he will get the answer.
A couple of hours later, he returned with exactly what I had wanted to hear, to a couple of decimal places.
I asked the interpreter: “How does he know that?”
“Turks admire a good conspiracy theory. They’re not really into Occam’s Razor.”
I came home from Turkey impressed by the inhabitants’ respectability, the scenic beauty, the reasonable prices (having been kept out of the European Union for not being all that European, Turkey dodged the euro bullet that flattened the rival Greek economy), and the omnipresence of the past. Most of all, I realized that I didn’t have a clue what was going on behind closed doors in Turkey. The place really is byzantine, intricate, and opaque.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to come up with an analogy to American history that would shed some light on Turkish politics since the beginning of the 20th century.
All right, try this: Imagine that in 1908 the most advanced thinkers of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Greenwich Village take over the US Army. They eventually move the capital to Omaha and rename the country the Midwestern Republic. Yet the four times the country elects somebody a little more Christian than a Unitarian Universalist, the Army stages a coup.
Finally, the Midwesterners stare down the Army. To rub in their long-thwarted dominance, the Midwestern Christian Party then orders all the bars in New York City to close at 10PM, driving New Yorkers into Times Square to protest.
Does that clear everything up?
No, I guess it doesn’t.
But that’s kind of the point. The more I’ve learned about Turkey’s past, the more I realize how little I know. The old, weird world centered around Constantinople, the Caput Mundi of the Middle Ages.
Byzantium was renamed Constantinople in 330AD by the Emperor Constantine. He chose it to be the new capital of the Roman Empire due both to its strategically supreme location on the Bosphorus Straits dividing Europe from Asia and its tactically defensible site on the Golden Horn. Napoleon, no small judge of geography, said, “If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”
After the Ottoman Turks finally conquered it in 1453, the renamed Istanbul ruled their vast domain. As the once dynamic Ottoman Empire slowly decayed into the “sick man of Europe,” it became the world capital of conspiracy theorizing.
Turks admire a good conspiracy theory. They’re not really into Occam’s Razor. The smartest guy in the room isn’t the one with the simplest explanation; he’s the one whose idea has the most convolutions.
A few years ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrested hundreds of military officers on charges of participating in giant conspiracy to overthrow his Islamic party’s rule called Ergenekon. The military men protested their innocence, but many in Turkey seemed to feel that since Erdogan was plotting against the generals, it would have been silly of the generals not to plot against him.
Or consider a historical example. You’ve noticed that some people are obsessed with the Freemasons, which seems comical. Why the Masons instead of the Elks or the Shriners? (Well, there is that eyeball atop the pyramid on the dollar bill.…)
Yet in the Ottoman Empire, Masonic lodges actually were centers of secular modernism and revolutionary intrigue against the Sultan. Why? All those years learning secret handshakes deterred quick infiltration by the secret police. (In the English-speaking world, we find conspiracy theories about Freemasons funny because the Masons, such as Ben Franklin and George Washington, more or less won.)
Of course, since much of the Empire’s political maneuvering was carried out within lodges, historians are left guessing over what really happened. But it’s clear that the fascinating Ottoman port city of Salonika was the leading entryway for disturbing Western ideas into the stagnant Empire. Salonika is so far west that since 1912 it has been the Greek city of Thessaloniki.
The famous Young Turk revolution that originated in Salonika in 1908 modernized the dynasty. But it also helped plunge the Ottomans into the tumultuous decade and a half from which the formidable Salonikan general Mustafa Kemal Ataturk finally extricated the country by reconfiguring the Ottoman Empire as the nationalist state of Turkey.
The unexpected Young Turk takeover of the Istanbul government was headlined in The New York Times on September 6, 1908: “HOW THE TURKISH REVOLUTION ARRIVED: Salonikan Freemasons and Young Turks Who Won Over the Army.”
The Times explained that for the Young Turk party, “its basis is Freemasonry, which in the last three years has grown prodigiously in Turkey. The Salonika Freemasons, whose very existence was hitherto a profound secret.…” (The Times account includes the increasingly baffling subheads: “ACTIVE DR. NAZIM BEY: Another Nazim Bey Turns Informer and Precipitates the Coup by Seeking to Betray Major Enver Bey.” Like I said, this place is complicated.)
Salonika was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious city, with Sephardic Jews making up a plurality and often a majority of the population for most of the centuries after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. An important modernizing elite within Salonika (until they relocated to Istanbul in the early 20th century) were the crypto-Jewish followers of the 17th-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi.
Yes, I know it sounds like I’m babbling crazy talk about false messiahs and crypto-Jews, but the role of both “Dönme” and public Jews in the creation of modern Turkey is increasingly accepted by 21st-century Jewish scholars.
That has not always been so. In 1971, the Jewish historian Elie Kedourie published a scoffing paper entitled “Young Turks, Freemasons and Jews,” in which he pointed and sputtered at the British ambassador to Istanbul’s secret 1910 letter to the Viceroy of India on the “Judeo-masonic and Young Turk conspiracy.”
Admitting the Jewish and crypto-Jewish involvement in the rise of the Young Turks from Salonika is politically difficult for Jewish historians because the Young Turks who went on to rule the Ottoman Empire during World War I ordered the mass expulsions of their Armenian subjects from their traditional homeland near the border of the enemy Russian Empire. In the horrors of 1915, vast numbers of Armenians were killed.
This tragic chain of events, in which initial reformist good intentions went horribly wrong, seems fairly representative of how the world too often works. Yet this would be difficult to reconcile with the conventional wisdom that portrays Jews as wholly powerless victims of history rather than as players in the game like everybody else.
In recent years, however, Jewish historians less worried about stoking anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have been more forthcoming about Jewish and crypto-Jewish historical agency in the Near East. For example, the 2009 Stanford University Press book The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks by UC Irvine historian Marc David Baer states:
The Dönme helped transform Salonika into a cosmopolitan city, promoting the newest innovation in trade and finance, urban reform, and modern education. They eventually became the driving force behind the 1908 revolution that led to the overthrow of the Ottoman sultan and the establishment of a secular republic.
This trend toward greater openness should be applauded. After all, information wants to be free, right?